WWOOFing Part 6: Pasture Management
Yet another part of my WWOOFing experience has been learning about the reconstruction of the prairie ecosystem through the reintroduction of native warm season grasses and management of a (future) bison herd. My host Jonathan does contract work for a local landowner who has recently logged land with an invasive pine habitat and is in the process of converting it to a grassland populated with indigenous grass species in order to support indigenous bison as well as native wildlife such as the northern bob-white quail or eastern wild turkey. The owner intends to raise bison as a sustainable natural food source and is interested in using the animals to actually increase the health of the land through grazing management techniques. As you may be starting to see, this project is multi-faceted.
One of the first things I started working on when I began WWOOFing at the end of January was research into the benefits of native warm season grasses and their viability as forage. These grasses indisputably excel in the climate of southeastern Tennessee, withstanding both summer heat and drought as well as soil and pest conditions. They also provide excellent fodder for animals, have high yields, require less fertilizer, and peak nutritionally when fescue – the most common of pasture grasses in the US – goes into its summer dormancy. The problem? They are slow to establish, taking up to three years before being ready for grazing, and can be easily outcompeted by invasive species such as Bermuda grasses. In order to provide the best possible conditions for their establishment, I have been working with Jonathan to examine options for preparing the land prior to seeding, which we hope to begin in the last week of April. This has included meeting with the National Resource Conservation Service to consider a controlled burn that would clear the remaining debris on the ground and suppress weed competition, discussing the acquisition of goats to control the woody regrowth, surveying the land for plant regrowth, deciding ratios and mixes of grasses as well as pricing seed, and researching and locating the equipment needed for seeding.
Other than slow establishment, another possible downside to native warm season grasses is that they require more management than cool season grasses since mature plants have an extremely high growth rate that requires intensive grazing (or high stocking rates) and/or well-timed haying. But by definition of being native, these warm season grasses are well-suited to the climate and provide exceptionally nutrient-dense, high-protein feed during the summer when traditional (invasive) cool season grasses cannot and thus are an extremely beneficial addition to any forage-production operation.
The need for more management is actually not a downside for the landowner we’re working with however since he has an interest in management intensive grazing, specifically “mob grazing,” in which large densities of animals are rotated through small portions of pasture. Mob grazing was recognized in the 1970s by Allan Savory, a biologist and resource manager, as an animal management technique that could reverse land degradation and desertification of grasslands. While increasing the number of animals on a piece of land may seem counterintuitive to reversing damage, Savory has demonstrated that dense stocking rates of domesticated farm animals mimic herd behavior of large grassland-dwellers who lived within the plains ecosystem for thousands of years without destroying it. The key is to recognize that high-density stocking is not synonymous with a total number of animals; in order for the system – which has been dubbed “Holistic Management” – to work, animals must be moved frequently to allow plant regrowth. Without rotating such large numbers of animals off small pieces of land, destruction through overgrazing is quick and inevitable: Just Google a picture of a cattle feedlot.
The Holistic Management approach actually aids in the restoration of the habitat through condensed litter and compaction of said litter through hoof action. Simply put, that many animals in a small space will trample a portion of the plant cover while leaving a lot of concentrated manure and urine. Once rotated off that section of land, the trampled litter will retain water (especially important in low-rainfall areas or those with perennial humidity such as the plains) and readily compost, creating topsoil and fostering accelerated plant regrowth. Mob grazing requires proper management and frequent rotations to guard against overgrazing – particularly with native warm season grasses which should not be grazed below 12-15” – but the potential environmental benefits are enormous. So while labor costs (namely the time to move the animals and plan) may increase, the forage yield will also increase resulting in a net profit AND a healthier ecosystem.
Allan Savory has demonstrated his model is very scalable and promotes it as a solution to global desertification that is happening in the grasslands that cover a third of earth’s land. Saving this land from desertification increases carbon sequestration, increases biodiversity through restoration of habitat, and perhaps most importantly, promotes water retention which can have wide-ranging effects such as increased availability of drinking water and less frequent droughts which can lead to increased food production and reduction of poverty which can then result in stabilization of local economies – which is crucial in developing nations in particular. These ideas ultimately rest on the concept that shortages of resources undermine social stability, causing increased competition and thus, social unrest. These are lofty claims which I am certainly not qualified to evaluate, but Savory has won numerous environmental awards and gave a TED talk which is an excellent introduction to his methodology for anyone who’s interested. Though I cannot tell you if his methods will save the world, I have visited nearby Solace Farm in Coalmont, where Caleb and Amy Rae are applying some of his theories and successfully restoring vegetation to a 90 acre former strip mine with the use of rotational grazing of Highland Cattle, goats, alpacas, chickens, turkeys, geese and a miniature horse. As a side note, they also grow their vegetables almost entirely in raised beds of worm castings since their property doesn’t have topsoil.
Back to the farm project I’m involved with: For my part, I have been involved with the GPS mapping of the property and the potential pasture divisions, as well as planning potential rotation systems. We will be beginning with only 14 cleared acres on which to plant the native warm season grasses and pasture the bison, but we hope to create a more robust rotational system in the future once the rest of the 67 fenced-in acres have been cleared and replanted. This project will be long-term but ultimately should be very rewarding, supplying high-quality, grass-fed bison meat to the local market while restoring natural habitat to native species.